'Drogheda can do a job on Helsingborgs'
PAT WALKER is bullish about Drogheda United's chances against Helsingborgs in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Cup . . . and that's good news for the Boynesiders as Walker is one of the most knowledgeable coaches in Sweden.
For years, Irish teams, at every level, found teams from Sweden hard to master, but in recent years that trend has been reversed. With the exception of Cork City's reverse to Hammarby in the InterToto Cup this season, Irish clubs have been in the ascendancy.
Walker, who was on the Bohemians team which lost a memorable FAI Cup final to Sligo Rovers in 1983, is part of the reason for the change in fortune. He has been based in Sweden, and has been heavily involved in coaching there for over 20 years. As a result, he is the first port of call when an Irish club is drawn against a Swedish club in European competition.
Currently manager of Orebro, who he guided to promotion to the premier league last season, Walker has assisted his former Bohs teammate Paul Doolin, Cork City boss Damien Richardson, and former Derry City manager Stephen Kenny in the past 12 months.
Last year, Walker, who is a native of Carlow, marked Doolin's card when Drogheda played HJK Helsinki, and he can expect another call now that Helsingborgs are due in Dalymount Park on Thursday, August 16.
So have Drogheda any chance against Helsingborgs, I asked Walker yesterday. "Absolutely, they have every chance," he responded. "If Drogheda are on song they can do a job on Helsingborgs, who have been up and down this season.
"They have a very slow defence, and they haven't been stringing it together. At the moment there is a big fight over one of their best players, the winger Stefanidis. They are prepared to sell him to Malmo, their local rivals, and that has caused uproar."
Stuart Baxter, a former England U19 and South Africa boss, is in charge of Helsingborgs. He has extensive experience with a variety of Swedish clubs and led AIK to the League title and a place in the Champions League group stages, so his teams can't be underestimated.
After the win over Libertas last Thursday, Doolin said he was hoping for "a good draw, which would give us a decent chance to progress to the first round proper." So has he got the draw he wanted? "It's not the worst draw," he conceded.
Like any manager, Doolin prefers to dwell on his own team. "We're decent enough, our players are experienced after going through three rounds (two last year) and have gained from that. We have been full-time for three years and the players are showing the benefit. Hopefully we can perform well and, if we do, we can certainly make it through."
Doolin is working off much the same squad as he had last year, with three new players, Stuart Byrne, John Tambouras and Richie Baker. Having missed most of the season through injury, Baker is like a new signing now that he is fully fit, and that could be a big bonus, as there were signs against Libertas that the team needed to be freshened up. Some of the passing, in uncontested situations, was very sloppy, and the service to the front men left a lot to be desired.
The fact that they were never in danger of losing was advanced by Doolin as one reason for his team's performance, and he also criticised the pitch which could have done with being watered.
Two months ago, Drogheda had only 12 players in training and they still have two out with long-term injuries, strikers Declan O'Brien and Shane Barrett. Doolin is pinning his hopes on new signing Guy Bates to fill the gap up front.
"He's a bit different to what we have at present," said Sami Ristila, who has been filling in beside Eamonn Zayed. "He's well built and puts himself about." Formerly with Newcastle United, where he was top scorer for the reserves, Bates played in Australia and Belgium before signing for Drogheda.
Doolin, who intends travelling to see Helsingborgs in action against Kalmar next Sunday, will be keeping a close eye on Henrik Larsson, the former Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United striker. "You have to respect him, ability wise, when you consider the clubs he's played for. Hopefully he'll help draw a bigger crowd to Dalymount, because that's what the club, and the players, want. The better the atmosphere, the better they'll perform."
Meanwhile, Pat Walker's team Orebro face a vital game at home to Hammarby, conquerors of Cork City, this afternoon. One point adrift at the bottom, Orebro need to put some wins on the board.
With only one team to be relegated, Walker's situation is not too bad. "The only pressure is from myself, " he said. "The media and the fans are not a problem, it's just up to us to keep believing." Three points today would help stoke that belief.
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